To Get a Better Read On People, Read More Books

Many of us think we know what emotional intelligence looks like, but Lisa Feldman Barrett, professor of psychology at Northeastern University and author of How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, says we’ve been painting ourselves the wrong picture for some time now.

First, emotional intelligence is not separate from cognitive intelligence. The two systems go hand-in-hand and are, in fact, quite inextricably linked.

“Decades of neuroscience research now show that no part of your brain is exclusively dedicated to thoughts or emotions,” Barrett writes in a recent piece for Nautilus. “Both are produced by your entire brain as billions of neurons work together.”

This is good news for people who want to become more emotionally intelligent, or who equate emotional intelligence with sensitivity, intuition, and other “non-cognitive” traits. It means there are potential strategies, rooted in cognitive intelligence, that might help us better understand ourselves and others.

Like cognitive intelligence, emotional intelligence can be enhanced through education and experience. When we see someone who appears to be angry, or when we ourselves believe we feel angry, our first instinct is to leave it at that. This is because the brain must make quick assumptions, or predictions, in order to optimise our chances for survival.

“Your brain’s most important job is not thinking or feeling or even seeing, but keeping your body alive and well so that you survive and thrive (and eventually reproduce),” writes Barrett. “How is your brain to do this? Like a sophisticated fortune-teller, your brain constantly predicts. Its predictions ultimately become the emotions you experience and the expressions you perceive in other people.”

But one product of a first-rate education is the inclination to question our assumptions about the world around us. Is he really angry, or could I be mistaken? Even if he is projecting a negative emotion, is it anger, or something else? Barrett reminds us there are far more emotions than we have words for when she mentions the German term “schadenfreude” (taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortunes) and the Intuit “iktsuarpok” (a feeling of anticipation and impatience while waiting for someone to arrive). “As you learn these foreign terms and the concepts behind them,” she says, “you may become able to perceive these emotions in others and even experience them yourself.” The bottom line: we can teach ourselves to be more emotionally intelligent.

One way to do this is to, quite literally, expand our emotional vocabulary.

For example, is the person angry, or are they “resentful,” “annoyed,” or “bitter”? Is someone simply happy, or are they “elated,” “satisfied,” “grateful”?

“Each new word seeds your brain with the capacity to make new emotion predictions, which your brain can employ as a tool to construct your future experiences and perceptions, and to direct your actions.”

Your brain will still be guessing, but if it has more options to choose from, chances are higher that it will guess appropriately.

“Your brain is not static; it rewires itself with experience. When you force yourself to learn new words—emotion-related or otherwise—you sculpt your brain’s microwiring, giving it the means to construct those emotional experiences, as well as your perceptions of others’ emotions, more effortlessly in the future.”

What does this all mean? Reading can enhance emotional intelligence.

Empathy, in particular, has been found to grow as a result of consuming more literature. Kotovych et al. (2011) argue that reading is “like a conversation between narrator and reader: When we try to understand a character in a book, we make similar inferences about what the other is thinking and feeling as in conversation, and making such inferences would increase our understanding of and identification with the character.” Mar and Oatley (2008) add that making mental inferences about characters results in identification, empathy and/or sympathy with these characters, which could actually translate to real life: “Through the process of simulating others’ experiences, readers might eventually feel more empathy for others outside of the narrative world.”

So pick up a book (or two, or ten) and find out how the people around you—managers, colleagues, teachers, students—are really feeling.


Saga Briggs is Managing Editor of InformED. You can follow her on Google+ or @sagamilena

3 Responses

  1. Naijamusic says:

    Amazing this post is very informative.. I’m sharing it right now with my peers.. Thanks for sharing Saga Briggs.


  2. Audrey Foster says:

    I am doing what you suggest. Thank you very much. I am passing the information on to students.

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